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CJCCJ/Volume 63.1 (2021)

Researching Perpetrators of Genocide

Kjell Anderson and Erin Jessee (Eds.)
University of Wisconsin Press. 2020. 224 p.

Since the mid-1990s, the rejuvenation of international criminal justice has prompted some criminologists to think more seriously about the meaning of “criminality”. More specifically, today, criminologists not only focus on state-defined censure of social harms but consider the state and its agents as potential offenders. Consequently, the number of criminological inquiries into causes of international crimes has gradually been increasing.

International criminal tribunals have also opened additional venues for data collection. Nowadays, the case files of the ICTY, the ICTR and the ICC are part and parcel of criminological inquiry into international crimes, despite an awareness that data processed through transitional justice mechanisms carry a potentially skewed meaning due to inevitable political influences on these institutions. The presence of bias in institutional data has been a long-known challenge in criminological research and this is accentuated in State crime research, prompting researchers – albeit mostly from disciplines other than criminology (e.g., political science or anthropology) – to resort to first-hand research methods (i.e., interviews with victims and perpetrators). Notwithstanding several recent criminological studies which substantially rely on such primary data (see Vojta 2020, Anderson 2018, Devresse and Scalia 2016), criminologists have in general been reluctant to adopt first-hand qualitative research practices with perpetrators of international crimes.

This has been due to several methodological challenges associated with this kind of research. My study on imprisonment and rehabilitation of the ICTY convicts is quite vocal about some of these challenges (see Vojta 2020: 11 ff). Another actuality that keeps some criminologists from engaging with first-hand perpetrator research is their preconceptions about international crimes. More specifically, researchers might deem the perpetrators unworthy of being heard. It is possible such a stance might limit the researcher’s perspective on how international crimes and their deterrence should be researched and conceptualized. The perspective itself is also contentious from an ethical standpoint. For example, it could be argued that by demonizing the perpetrators of international crimes, researchers engage in the same psychological mechanisms that triggered the atrocities in the first place.

By focusing on the conceptual, methodological, and ethical challenges involved in the first-hand perpetrator research, the Editors, Kjell Anderson (University of Manitoba) and Erin Jesse (University of Glasgow), of “Researching Perpetrators of Genocide” have undoubtedly chosen a topic par excellence for those involved in the empirical study of international crimes. The Editors present a compelling case for the timeliness of their contribution right from the start. Researchers have engaged in discourses revolving predominantly around their research results for too long, leaving the ethical and methodological difficulties and lessons learned prior, during and after fieldwork to “hallway talk”, at the margins of the scholarly enterprise. Appreciating the implications of such a dilemma and relying substantially on their own research, the Editors set out to bring projects from different disciplines (e.g., anthropology, history, political science, and criminology) into a conversation to produce a preliminary code of practice. To my knowledge, the book represents the first of its kind, assisting researchers to thinking through the variety of ethical and methodological challenges that underlie this kind of close-contact fieldwork. The Editors’ focus on the practical aspects of the research with the perpetrators of atrocities makes this volume stand out among other – predominantly description- and classification-oriented – works that have recently been occurring within the field of so-called “perpetrator studies”.

In the introduction, the Editors clarify how they adopt a broader, socio-historical approach to the discussion of genocide. Next to internationally recognized genocides, they also consider violence outside the legal definition of genocide (destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group). According to the Editors, such violence might constitute cases of “potential” genocides”, as it involves widespread civilian casualties targeted on the ground of additional identifiers, such as gender, class or political affiliation. Such an epistemological approach is not without merit. First, it denounces the notorious “realpolitik” considerations that taint the legal definition. Secondly, considering a broader range of violence makes room for new research perspectives on the escalating nature of genocide (e.g., studying bias-motivated violence as a precursor to genocide). Researchers should nevertheless be cautious not to dismiss the current legal perspective too soon. To be legally labelled as the perpetrator of genocide, the offender must act with genocidal knowledge and/or purpose. This intent must pertain to the destruction of a group (instead of victimization of lesser intensity). Many perpetrators of violence (depending on their role and structural involvement) might act without this destructive purpose. They might also be ignorant of their actions contributing to the genocidal policy (especially private actors, as opposed to state agents). Therefore, a broader approach to understanding genocide should be careful not to disregard personal agency in perpetuating mass violence. Seeing every perpetrator as a potential “genocidaire” (i.e., including those lacking the intent to destroy) would banalize the empirical complexity of genocide and its legal ramifications.

The conceptual and disciplinary considerations informing our image of the genocide perpetrator – partly reflecting those above – are discussed by Anderson (Ch. 1) when talking about different perpetrator representations. In the context of the present book, the “researcher” perspective is undoubtedly the most thought-provoking element. The author intricately discusses a range of influences that might – often unwittingly – permeate and dilute our sense of scientific objectivity when conducting research. This discussion is greatly expanded upon in the following seven chapters by scholars with proven qualitative research experience related to several conflict/State-violence settings (i.e., Cambodia, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, Syria, Argentina, and Nazi-occupied Hungary). What stands out in these chapters is the reoccurring theme of (intergenerational) memory transfer (see chapter 3 by Erin Jessee, chapter 4 by Ivana Maček, and chapter 7 by Andrea Pető). This is especially interesting given criminology’s known disdain for memory theory.

Insights from history and anthropology can be of great benefit for informing criminological thinking about the use of individual and collective memory in perpetuating or preventing atrocities. Equally important – as the authors insightfully show, both individual and collective memory are susceptible to temporal and contextual influences. This has a significant impact on fieldwork. For example, a discrepancy in perspective between a researcher and his/her respondents on how the perpetrators and their actions should be framed can be problematic for procuring the relevant data; especially if the respondents themselves should drive sampling, as shown by Timothy Williams (Ch. 2). The discrepancy between personal and collective memories is addressed by Jessee (Ch. 4) when discussing the suspicion of the Rwandan government towards her research on imprisoned perpetrators of genocide. The author reveals the challenges that such an attitude poses for access to the interviewees, the participants’ safety, and disseminating the results. These points are further elaborated upon by other authors, such as Eva van Roekel (Ch. 5), who vividly describes the intricacies of building a rapport with indicted military junta members in Argentina. The author discovered how “becoming silent” and leaving the interviewees space to develop their narratives (cf. Marie-Sophie Devresse and Damien Scalia, Ch. 8) can be more beneficial in establishing trust and obtaining data than insistently pursuing one’s research agenda. Similarly, Ivana Maček draws on experience to recognize how a focus on “silences” and “affective shifts” in emotionally laden narratives often reveal important data about people’s rationalization of both their actions and that of others that might otherwise not be expressed.

Conducting first-hand research often comes with an emotional toll and exhilarating excitement. These dynamic aspects are rarely given much attention in the literature. Therefore, the authors should be applauded for bringing them into a scholarly discussion. Another important issue discussed pertains to the use of unorthodox yet potentially efficient instruments of risk mitigation in open conflict areas, such as social networking applications (see Uğur Ümit Üngör, 137 ff).  This is all summarized and profoundly reflected upon in the conclusion (the “code of practice”) to explore additional practical challenges and solutions to overcome them.

These are just some of the themes and issues covered in this fascinating and useful volume. Researching Perpetrators of Genocide is not a definitive treatise on methodology and ethics in first-hand research with perpetrators of atrocities. The Editors are clearly aware of this in considering many topics that remain open for further discussion. However, this does not diminish the practical value this book holds for both seasoned scholars and “rookies” to the field. On the contrary, one should hope that the much-needed discussion about the long-neglected topics this volume tackles will only mature in the future, together with our sensibilities, reflection and constructive criticism towards our research.



Anderson, Kjell Perpetrating Genocide: A Criminological Account. London and New York: Routledge.

Devresse, Marie-Sophie and Damien Scalia Hearing tried people in international criminal justice: sympathy for the Devil? International Criminal Law Review 16: 796-825.

Vojta, Filip 2020. Imprisonment for International Crimes: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of the ICTY Sentence Enforcement Practice. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

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